Running Down a Dream

An exuberant Elliot Watson celebrates a racing win


The University of San Diego was definitely on Eliott Watson’s radar as a potential college choice as he made a visit to campus, but a picture he received on his cell phone gave USD an edge.

“My parents were doing their own campus tour, checking out facilities,” Watson recalls. Photos of the machine shop and design labs taken inside the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering’s Belanich Center were nice, but one image stood out.

“When they saw the Baja vehicle and sent me pictures, I thought, ‘Okay, that’s a big attraction.’ That showed me how hands-on students could be in engineering labs, the machine shop and through the Baja project. It definitely pulled me to USD.”

The Mini Baja Project, as it is known at USD, is a student-built, off-road vehicle for a capstone design project for the Society of Automotive Engineers Collegiate Design Series. Senior engineering students design, engineer, fabricate, test and ultimately compete in their off-road vehicle.

Watson, 20, is a third-year electrical engineering major now and isn’t eligible for a senior capstone project just yet, but when it happens, he’ll be a natural. He can give the team an immediate advantage.

Watson drove his first racing vehicle at the age of six. He competed regularly at age 10 and, since he turned 14, he’s been a professional driver in the Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series (LOORRS) in the Pro Buggy division. He’s the back-to-back Pro Buggy champion for 2019 and 2020 and is also driving off-road desert vehicle races for Team Honda Talon Factory Racing.

While COVID-19 played havoc with his racing schedule in 2020, Watson won his last eight races to claim the Pro Buggy title in October and had a breakout performance for Honda with a second-place finish in SCORE Baja 500’s UTV Pro Turbo class.

Watson is the son of Tom Watson Jr., a four-time off-road desert buggy racing champion. The latter stepped away from competitive racing in 2007 to focus on his electrical company, a growing family and to teach racing to Eliott.

First it was Trophy Karts, then the move to Pro Buggy. At 14, Eliott was the youngest to join this competitive class. “It was all adults and me,” he said. “It was a big learning curve, but I had fun with it. I started slow, but we’ve been running hard ever since.”

Last year in Chandler, Arizona, Watson checked the box on his first LOORRS Pro Buggy points championship. Tied in the standings late, Watson battled through a tough final race to clinch the title.

“Finally, after chasing the Pro Buggy title for three years and coming up short, we got it done,” Watson said. “We have fought so hard to get this championship. To lock it up, finally, is something I’ve dreamed about my whole life.”

He repeated the title feat in San Bernardino, California, and was named LOORRS Driver of the Year.

Racing has been at the forefront, but attending USD is equally rewarding. He’s gaining time management skills by balancing both. Remote learning has been helpful, given his schedule commitments, but he’s also got a racing colleague who understands. One of his best friends, Christopher Polvoorde, is a third-year business finance and real estate double major. Polvoorde has raced in the LOORRS Pro Lite (Truck) series since 2017. Polvoorde and Watson are Honda teammates, too.

“We’ve had our eyes on Eliott and Christopher for some time,” said Jeff Proctor, team principal for the Honda Talon Factory Racing, when he announced the drivers’ signing. “At their young ages, they already have long and successful careers in short-course racing, with multiple championships between them in many classes and they show no signs of slowing down. They’re perfect for our program and we look forward to helping them develop as racers.”

“Eliott is an outstanding race car driver who has a large future ahead of him. Just look at his results, which provide plenty of proof,” Polvoorde says. “Eliott is a great example of how results are earned, not given, and this applies to both his racing and academics. He’s one of the most down-to-earth, hardest-working individuals I know.”

They enjoyed a good laugh during Honda’s recruitment process when they were USD roommates during their second year.

“We were talking to the same company about a new team they were putting together and we both signed confidentiality agreements,” Watson says. “We were talking to them, but Honda didn’t know we were roommates. When they got us both to sign, they introduced us in an email. We looked at each other and both said, ‘You were talking to them and you didn’t tell me?’ It was so funny.”

Engineering-wise, Watson enjoys a bonus benefit from the Honda signing. “It has been awesome to work with the engineers at Honda and to see what goes into their jobs on a day-to-day basis. Being around them inspires me to get back in the classroom and get my degree.” — Ryan T. Blystone

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